I married my mother-in-law. Well, it sometimes feels like it. Nearly three years ago, along with my wife, Kate, and our daughter, Flora (then aged three), I moved in with Murray (70) and Joan (an age not unadjacent to that of her spouse). The ostensible reason was that my in-laws were increasingly “gaga”, as my father-in-law put it, and would require some cheap helpers around the place; but this disguised the true cause – that my wife, in common with many people in their thirties, wanted to return to the nest.
It’s a millennial thing. According to a recent Social Trends survey, nearly a third of men aged between 20 and 35 are, in that phrase redolent of scrubbed ears and cold, corned-beef sandwiches, “still living with their parents”. As many people pointed out in response to the survey, fewer men want to give up those little things that make civilised life tolerable – the washed shirt, the cooked breakfast, the made bed – for the crumpled, eggy reality of 2.4 Man.
For years, Kate bombed around London with a short skirt and a large attitude, extracting the sordid marrow from Notting Hill, only to retreat at the weekends, as all good country girls do, to battered old wellies and her mother’s raspberry patch.
Now, you must understand that I am resolutely a townie. Before I met Kate, my idea of hell was so-called fresh air, which seemed to me a mixture of cow’s farts and herbicide. And, man, those cows are dangerous; they fix you with an evil grin that says: “I’m going to have you, soft boy.” Then they gang up and charge on you, leaving behind huge gloops of turds for your Pradas to suck up.
Four years after we married, we gave up our bijou working man’s cottage in a luvvie enclave five minutes from the Halcyon and decamped to rural Hertfordshire. My only consolation was that the house was close enough to both the M25 and the M1 that I was woken by the sound of traffic making its blissful way towards the metropolis. And so I became a live-in son-in-law and part of a social experiment in multi- generation living. We constitute a proud assault on the assumption of the past two centuries and the orthodoxy of the past 50 years – that people are best adapted to living in isolated, small houses with their current partner and their partner’s children.
After the fatted calf had been killed and served on the best green china, we announced the news that our second child was on the way, thus reversing the polarities – we became the emotional basket cases and the in-laws the towers of strength.
This was life lived on the emotional sharp end. Who could forget the war of David’s Guardian? Or the Battle of Goose Fat? Or the long, Somme-like trench engagement over me leaving my shoes beneath the old sewing machine near the front door? We wear these battle honours with pride at the annual totting-up ceremony, as Joan and I work out who won most. When generations come together, forget the big stuff, it’s the little things that spin the psychic bottle and lurk like terrorists in the emotional thicket.
The Battle of Goose Fat was an interesting example. For about 12 years, I was a vegetarian (or “pescatarian”, given that, for some tortuous reason to do with fish not having a spine or being mammals, and me loving cod and chips, I decided that eating them was fine). While Joan acknowledged this in her mind, her heart beats like a true cook. Her soups, which are truly magnificent, are made with animal stock, normally those pesky pheasants that Murray tops every Saturday. For our first months together, she would resolutely assure me that the stock was made with vegetables (carefully avoiding the locution, “made of vegetables”). I initially made a joke of the situation, hinting darkly that I might be forced to eat the festering crab patty left over from Christmas (in one of those little penicillin-gathering pots that Joan specialises in); then I began to pretend to her that I believed her; then I started to believe it myself, and eventually I just gave in and started eating meat. So there’s only one spineless mammal in our household these days. Round one to Joan.
Ah, but there was a comeback: the Saturday papers. In that period known as BMI (before moving in), Saturday and Sunday mornings were marked by the frantic sound of D Docherty trying to find out where Joan had hidden the newspapers. They were normally under the dead and bloodied carcass of a deer that Murray had shot on his way out to shoot some pheasants – on the principle that vegetarians are wimps and vegetarians who need to read the Sunday papers before Monday are probably onanists.
Joan’s basic argument here is sound: the news is still there on Monday morning, the reviews can wait, and anyway, on weekend mornings men should be (a) chopping down a tree for winter firewood (especially in high summer); (b) castrating a sheep with your teeth (if it was good enough for old Mr Lucket, it should be good enough for you); (c) writing an Appeal Court judgement while skinning 40 pheasants and reciting large chunks of King Lear by heart. This latter feat is a speciality of Murray, a man whose first name I thought was “marvellous” for the first few months, as in Joan’s cry of “marvellous Murray will do this”, “marvellous Murray did that” and “David, have I explained why marvellous Murray doesn’t read the Sunday papers?”
As a mere weekend boarder, I had to suffer the indignity of begging for the odd glance at the headlines in the Sunday Telegraph; but as a fully fledged joint-funder of the household, I was damned if I would bend supine to my mother-in-law’s iron whim on this occasion. So I bribed our weekend cleaner to slip the Saturday Guardian into her apron and smuggle it through the back door into no-man’s land, where I read it furtively in the loo. Hah, that showed her. I walked tall for a week.
In truth, once you sort out the little things, the big things take care of themselves. My shoes now nestle happily under the sewing machine, my Saturdays are a delightful round of reading the paper and playing Teletubbies on the “pooter” with Joan’s youngest grandchild, Polly; and I happily rend pheasants limb from limb with my teeth like the best carnivore.
And there are huge benefits of living with your in-laws. Your kids are brought up to speak three generations of English, which you can often hear in one sentence. Flora: “Please may I chill, Grannie?” Joan: “Yes, darling, just wrap up well.” They learn Shakespeare from their grandpa. And you get to play games such as who gangs up on whom. The only rule is that no one is allowed to be dumped on by everyone simultaneously and that gender politics are banned. (This rule is void only if Joan mentions the second world war and that eating leftovers, even those covered in small blue marks, is a moral imperative. At that point, she is fair game.) Another great asset is that when you have spent every weekend for a year writing a thriller, your wife only vaguely wants to roast your balls for breakfast. Because somewhere else in the house are the charming, witty, intriguing, thoughtful people that are my in-laws. Kate and the kids can chat to them and ignore the obsessive in the attic. Would I recommend the multi-generational life to others? Only if you’re interested in the Charles Manson Award for good neighbourliness.
The writer’s “The Spirit Death” is published by Simon & Schuster (£12.99)